This feels like I’m grassing up an uncle for some past crime that no one noticed: there’s a genuine moral obligation, shadowed by a distinct sadness at the destruction of fun memories, but above all there’s anger – anger at somehow having colluded, as a child, with behaviour I now find shocking and unacceptable. Whether or not you agree with the tearing down of statues of colonial leaders and other forms of restitutional justice, we are in an age of righting our past wrongs and doing our mucky historical laundry in order to sleep in cleaner sheets; comedy, and its leaders, should be afforded no less scrutiny. So, here I am: grassing up my ‘uncle’.
I grew up watching Vic Reeves (Jim Moir) and Bob Mortimer in the 1990s and 2000s – they were my generation’s Goons or Pythons: madcap fellows that mum and dad didn’t understand; that no one really understood because they weren’t supposed to be understood – it was more comedy on a certain plane of consciousness than any recognisably humorous shtick; Dada and slapstick through the filter of silliness. And that resonated wildly with me and a cult following who occupied the same wavelength. Vic and Bob made us laugh in a way not many have managed since, and in so doing they helped shape the sense of humour I have today.
The England in which Vic and Bob plied their early trade was very different to contemporary society; as it was different from the decades that preceded it. Having grown up with the racism abound in the working-class North through the ‘70s and ‘80s, historian David Olusonga has observed that “The 1990s and the 2000s were, in many ways, better days”. Overtly racist comedy had largely been purged from the mainstream by the ‘90s, reflecting changing social attitudes as comedy often does. Love Thy Neighbour, Mind Your Language, and Till Death Us Do Part were all relics of a past increasingly viewed as shameful. However, the less monitored ‘wild west’ of stand-up comedy still provided a platform for racist comedians such as Jethro, Bernard Manning, Mike Reid, and Roy Chubby Brown.
At street level, jokes about black, Indian, Pakistani and Chinese people were still rife, while ones about Irish people played a particular role in the English working man’s life: making it OK to be at the bottom of the heap, because there was someone underneath that. Nationalistic racism remained a far more potent force on the council estates and in the pubs than it is today. In 1993, Stephen Lawrence was murdered while waiting for a bus in Eltham by a gang of racist thugs, demonstrating that racism was still a very real and deadly phenomenon for black people in England at the time.
The Lawrence case and Sir William Macpherson’s resulting public inquiry changed a lot of things. Speaking to Hugh Muir in 2012, Imran Khan, lawyer of the Lawrence family, said: “What the Lawrence case did was it made race mainstream … It pleases me that someone from Big Brother who is said to be a racist causes a furore; that footballers can be admonished in the press and thought of badly because there is a hint of racism. That would never have started in 1993.”
I was nine-years-old in 1993 when Vic and Bob’s The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer first aired. (I’d been too young to understand their preceding show, Big Night Out). It was so in tune with mine and my siblings’ sense of humour that we assumed it was made just for us. Silly faces, funny walks, nonsensical dialogue, beating the crap out of each other with frying pans… Charlie Chuck. It was a contained madness that I can only liken to being one of five kids in a two-bedroomed council house.
Dad still lived with us then: a violent and adulterous drunk who has never really grasped why mum eventually kicked him out. He found those racist comedians, such as Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown, funny. And, of course, he controlled the only TV in the house – so if we wanted to watch, or even if we didn’t, out of drunken loneliness he would force us to sit at his feet and watch whatever shit he wanted to. It was always either bigoted comedy or interminable and dreary Westerns. I don’t remember if he was racist outside of telling and laughing at racist jokes, but I’m sure we laughed because he was laughing: and that was a form of conditioning. Luckily, at the same time we created our own entertainment, away from his rancid hegemony.
The outlandishness of Vic and Bob made them appear as if they could fit into our own mad family. We trusted them with their comedy, and just like with beloved, actual family members, one overlooked their more sinister parts for the sake of the whole package – completely unaware, as children, that there was even anything sinister about it. Only now, with hindsight, do I see the deeply problematic nature of our favourite double act.
Vic and Bob’s stuff is bedizened with racist material; their black- and brown-face sketches are far more abundant than those of comedians who were censured during the onset of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. This was criticism the pair completely evaded unlike their long-time collaborator Matt Lucas. And loveable Uncle Bob is the main culprit of the two, having seemingly blacked-up at every opportunity on Shooting Stars even when to do so had no obvious significance for a given sketch. The Mighty Boosh’s ‘Spirit of Jazz’ character, for example, may be morally unjustifiable in his black-face but at least he is logical to each episode’s narrative. There is seemingly no discernible logic to Mortimer’s black-face work.
The incriminating programs of Vic and Bob aren’t available on any of the major streaming sites, and in our one-click culture it may well be this alone that’s protected them. Only in the dingier recesses of YouTube can this troubling material be seen by anyone who has reason to seek it out.
I was given one such reason earlier this year when I interviewed Will Self for Capers. I spoke to Will about his time as team captain on Shooting Stars, and in response to a question about his favourite sketch he said: “I did like the Hernia Hotline sketch – although at the time I did voice some uneasiness about Bob Mortimer appearing brown-face, and in retrospect this was unacceptable.” I clicked over to YouTube to seek out the sketch, and there he was: loveable Uncle Bob, inexplicably painted brown with an afro wig on his balding head.
If we isolate that one sketch, there are possible grounds for the ‘Dada’ argument: the idea that meaning is irrelevant, and the presence of Mortimer in brown-face is just another completely random artistic flourish inspired by anti-establishmentarianism. But unlike the Dadaists, Vic and Bob have never been politically active. And the ‘random flourish’ argument collapses when you continue digging and unearth a bewildering array of racist sketches spanning more than 20 years and numerous shows. The ‘Hernia Hotline’ sketch is only the tip of an outré iceberg that might well – were they less revered and younger – sink their careers for good.
Craig David as a petrol station attendant being sacked for not turning up to work for seven days; Danny Glover sat on the toilet with facial twitches; a tiny-bodied Marvin Gaye sitting on the dock of the bay with Otis Redding and talking Geordie nonsense… Mortimer has played them all. In Shooting Stars alone, there is black-face in no less than nine sketches: as much as in The Mighty Boosh, Little Britain and The League of Gentlemen combined.
Moreover, there is a difference between Mortimer’s use of black-face and the others: almost invariably he portrays black people as inferior – which is exactly how black-face was employed for ‘entertainment’ during the era of slavery and Jim Crow, arguably the worst periods in African American history.
“Minstrelsy, comedic performances of ‘blackness’ by whites in exaggerated costumes and make-up, cannot be separated fully from the racial derision and stereotyping at its core” is how The National Museum of African American History and Culture puts it. This derisive stereotyping is always evident in Mortimer’s black- and brown-face work; his shtick being either to portray black people as unskilled and then exaggerate these mannerisms; or else portraying successful actors and performers but parodying and undermining them by reducing them to crude stereotypes.
Is it possible for a man such as Mortimer to live in ignorance of the well-documented, highly-emotive topic of black- and brown-face? Suggesting it was “of its time” is scarcely sufficient defence – Reeves and Mortimer’s black- and brown-face stuff began in the ‘90s, two decades after Spike Milligan had shows either cancelled or battered by critics for his overtly racist tosh (the same Spike Milligan quoted as an influence on Reeves and Mortimer). And all this blackface was put on during the soul-searching in Britain that followed Stephen Lawrence’s murder. Their racist material was very much out of touch with its time, and suggests a certain arrogance in their attitude that continues to this day. Do they think, due to their wackiness, original thinking, or god-like statuses in comedy, that they are above scrutiny?
Speaking to the Sun along with Paul Whitehouse in 2020, Mortimer described being forced to stop mimicking African accents on his Athletico Mince podcast for fear of a backlash, in spite of deploying accents of other nationalities on the show. Mortimer said: “I stopped doing it because something about it feels wrong. I suppose I’m just fearing . . . I’m not quite sure what’s wrong with it.” Being forced to drop African footballer accents does not sound like someone who understands, or cares to understand, the history of racist behaviour in which he is complicit. Whitehouse added that “when the joy is taken out of it” there’s no point doing it anymore – the “joy” of performing in black-face?! Or the “joy” of mocking another culture’s accent?!
Moir appeared equally blithe in a conversation with James Rampton of the Daily Express in 2020, who reported that: ‘[Moir] believes that his work – both on canvas and in comedy – is too wacky to ever offend anyone. “Bob and I never really went down that line. We were always too abstract, and we’ve always avoided politics.”’ Many will say that ignorance is no defence when it comes to breaking a moral law.
In the Huff Post, Dr David J. Leonard, professor of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University wrote: “Blackface is a part of a history of dehumanization, of denied citizenship, and of efforts to excuse and justify state violence … It is time to stop with the dismissive arguments that describe these acts as pranks, ignorance or youthful indiscretions”. For men as intelligent as Jim Moir and Bob Mortimer, to evince no understanding of their part in this history is at once unbelievable and upsetting for those of us who like our comedy uncles to be decent people.
In the absence of comment from Mortimer and Moir (after numerous attempts to contact them), I turned to the comedy world that I know, reaching out to some black British comedians to find out what black-face meant to them.
Gina Yashere, who moved to Los Angeles in 2007 because of the low ceiling for black women in British comedy pointed me in the direction of a video she recorded in 2020: speaking on the false notion that black-face was “acceptable at the time”, she said black-face was “acceptable to who? It was never acceptable to do black-face. Even from the days of The Black and White Minstrel [Show]; even as a child I knew that shit was racist and unacceptable and offensive”.
Ben Smith, better known as the rapper-stand-up-actor Doc Brown (Zadie Smith’s brother), who has a Jamaican mother and an English father, told me “It’s painful to see a culture belittled and ridiculed with tired stereotypes on stage or screen when real, actual black and brown people are still struggling in their real, actual lives.”
Bob Mortimer continues to make us all chortle on various mainstream shows with his unrelenting comedy nonsense. In Britain he remains perceived as a comedy great, but this dark cloud lurking over him puts his greatness in the shadows. Whether an artist can still be considered great while holding atrocious or unacceptable views is an age-old question: Salvador Dali, for example, was obsessed with Fascism and Nazism, yet his major works do not contain racist imagery so we tend not to view his art in that way. Mortimer’s major works do contain racist material, so we must consider his work within the parameters of racism.
My happy memories of Uncle Bob Mortimer are now tainted, perhaps irrevocably, by bitter disappointment at his inability – or unwillingness – to admit his fault, and anger at the suspicion that he may not think he is at fault at all. I am a dad now, and a patriarch of my wider family, and I would certainly tell my real uncle to his face that his past racism was disgraceful. Furthermore, if he continued, I’d have no moral alternative but to turn my back. The idea of laughing at the jokes of a racist is, in itself, laughable: I’m afraid you have relinquished that privilege with the absence of atonement.
Ideally, however, I am fonder of the position taken by Dr King in his Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963), who said: “like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light”. I am bringing my own shame out into the air and light, and I am, in the name of decency in British comedy, insisting that Jim Moir, and particularly Bob Mortimer, do the same.
In recent times, we have been able to oust many of the more deplorable parts of the past in comedy and moved forward into a more inclusive and accepting era. Vic and Bob can do the right thing for the comedy world they helped create by admitting they were wrong.